Family’s Lawsuit against Palestinian Authority, PLO on Behalf of Slain U.S Couple Moves Towards Resolution

February 3, 2011 - 2:08 PM
Lawsuit on Hamas Slayings Lingers in Court in Rhode Island

Providence, R.I. (AP) - A long and tortuous legal wrangle that brought the fallout of Mideast terrorism to U.S. courts, culminating in a $116 million default judgment against the Palestinian Authority, may be moving toward resolution.

It's been nearly 15 years since a machine-gun attack by Hamas militants killed U.S. citizen Yaron Ungar and his pregnant wife, Efrat, as they drove home from a wedding in Israel. Their relatives sued in American courts under a statute allowing U.S. citizens and their estates to seek damages for overseas acts of terrorism.

A federal judge in 2004 entered the $116 million judgment against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the following year froze Palestinian Authority assets in this country. The sum has not been paid and the case has slogged fitfully through the U.S. courts during appeals, inspections of Palestinian finances and diplomatic discussions between government officials.

A slight blink in the case was signaled recently when a judge indefinitely postponed a critical January court hearing on the Palestinian Authority's request to set aside the judgment. Neither he nor the lawyers in the case have explained why. And a recent filing by lawyers from both sides requested that the judge modify his order freezing Palestinian assets, noting cryptically that a "need has now arisen to transfer funds into two separate escrow accounts."

Neither side will discuss where the case stands. It's unclear whether the Palestinian Authority is preparing to pay a sum or otherwise resolve the case or continue contesting the judgment. After years of failing to defend itself in the Ungar case and similar suits, the organization has a new legal strategy and has pledged to take the cases seriously.

Yaron Ungar, a 25-year-old rabbinical student, was killed June 9, 1996, along with his wife in a drive-by shooting carried out by Hamas gunmen near Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. Their infant son Yishai survived unharmed. Their family remains in Israel.

The Ungars' estate sued in 2000 in Rhode Island, where the family's lawyer practices. The suit was one of several brought under the Anti-Terrorism Act _ a federal statute enacted after Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish-American, was killed when terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.

The suit alleges that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO provided a safe haven and operational base for Hamas, an Islamic militant group. Lawyers for the Palestinian Authority say Hamas alone is responsible, and several Hamas members have been convicted in the Ungars' death.

The Palestinian Authority and PLO initially failed to respond to the lawsuit, make then-leader Yasser Arafat available for questioning, or participate in the information-sharing process known as discovery. The Palestinians said they did not recognize the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts and argued that they were shielded from claims by sovereign immunity.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux, adopting a magistrate's recommendation, imposed a $116 million default judgment as punishment for the lack of response. In 2005, he froze assets of the Palestinian Authority in the United States. At the time, a lawyer for the Ungars' estate said he had identified assets throughout the country in dozens of financial partnerships.

Since then, the Palestinian Authority has hired a new team of lawyers, who have apologized for their clients' past "procedural missteps" and have expressed willingness to litigate, rather than ignore, the Ungar case and others like it.

"They also agreed to settle some of the suits in order to end the lengthy and costly litigation. This was a politically courageous decision that brought closure for the victims and their families," John Bellinger III, a lawyer and former legal adviser to the U.S. State Department during the Bush administration, told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said in a July deposition that the authority did not have the money to pay the default judgments in the cases and that the financial losses would have a "destabilizing" effect on the Palestinian economy.

"It is our belief that if, in fact, that if we're given a chance to defend ourselves, that it is likely that we will not be found liable in this particular case," he said. "That's why we feel strongly about being given a chance to defend ourselves."

The Palestinian Authority had also appealed for help from the U.S. government, which has declined to get involved.

Lagueux refused to vacate the default judgment in 2009, saying the Palestinian Authority must suffer the consequences of "intentional, deliberate and binding decisions" made by "dictatorial" leadership. But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back last year and directed Lagueux to hear more arguments on why the judgment should be vacated.

That hearing had been set for last month, but was indefinitely postponed and the case was put on hold.

Since then, lawyers have filed documents under seal and have refused to talk publicly about the case. In one recent filing, lawyers wrote that a "need has now arisen to transfer funds into two separate escrow accounts."

Court papers filed last year show a similar lawsuit involving the death of Aharon Ellis, a U.S. citizen killed by a Palestinian gunman in 2002 while performing at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera, Israel, was resolved in U.S. District Court in New York. His widow and other relatives were awarded a default judgment in 2006, but that judgment was vacated in January 2010 because "the parties have fully complied with the terms of the settlement agreement," according to the documents.

Though court papers don't detail the terms of the agreement, the settlement seems to reflect an evolving legal strategy by the Palestinians and may foreshadow a resolution here.

The Ungars still have relatives in Israel who have appeared sporadically in Rhode Island courts, including at a 2002 court hearing.

"It's like you have your taste buds, but you can't taste the food," Yaron Ungar's mother, Judith, said at the time. "That's what it's like living without Yaron."